Restoring Dignity

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 13, 2005

In 1894, Frederick Douglass wrote a speech about freedom's strange fruit, the bodies strung up by lynch mobs. He was, by then, the white-haired lion of the old abolition movement, the escaped slave turned national icon who had lived to see emancipation but also its backlash.

He penned his anti-lynching speech -- his last, it turned out -- at his Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, while seated at the roll-top oak desk in his library.

There seemed an intellectual idyll to Cedar Hill, so high on a hill that Douglass could look down on the Anacostia River and to the Capitol beyond. Douglass wrote there every day, surrounded by hundreds of books; busts and statues of mythic Roman figures (Diana, Mercury, Psyche); wisps of peacock feathers symbolizing good luck; and portraits of the white abolitionists with whom he'd campaigned.

As if completing the image of the proper Victorian-era gentleman that Douglass sought to project, a croquet court spread across his expansive lawn just outside his library window, near the grape arbor and the peach trees.

The former slave loved croquet. If there's some dissonance in that fact, well, that's Douglass. His lifestyle, his artifacts, his taste, speak of a man steeped in the class-conscious symbols and trends of his era. In keeping with the fashion of his day, he even selected a grayish-brown paint for Cedar Hill's exterior.

Next month, after decades during which the house has been white, the National Park Service will return Cedar Hill to Douglass's preferred color, with coffee, cream and blue detailing.

Some area residents are dismayed at the change. But the painting project is emblematic of the all-out push by Park Service officials to restore Cedar Hill as closely as possible to its original look. Curators want the museum, when it reopens by the end of next year, to precisely reflect the Douglass lifestyle and state of mind.

The self-taught orator, writer, thinker and moralist used his home and its iconography to project to the world a sense of arrival, of dignity. He had, after all, risen like few other black Americans before him: from the lash of the slave master to the prominence of high government office.

"What you've got here is somebody who is deeply conscious and proud of this kind of status he had achieved," says David W. Blight, a Yale University historian and author of "Frederick Douglass' Civil War."

Those 15 acres on which he lived in Anacostia carried the symbolism of his success, complete with servants, as befitted an affluent household of that era.

"So when he fills up his house with these kinds of Victorian objects or these classical objects, it's certainly an appeal for recognition, for status," says Blight.

In Douglass's lifestyle, he was in some respects "more Victorian than the Victorians," says Portia James, senior historian at the Anacostia Museum.

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